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Are Cruise Line Bar Prices Too High?

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By Dave Beers (CruiseReviews Editor)

One of the top questions asked on any cruise website is about drink prices on cruise ships.  This usually leads to questions about sneaking alcoholic beverages aboard, with two main camps being predominant.  One side claims the cruise line prices are not affordable for them and even buying a couple drinks per day would stress their budget.  The other side simply wants to drink heavily and do it as cheaply as possible.  There is also a smaller faction, who say they simply want to have a bottle in their cabin for pre-dinner drinks.

I really don’t want to get into the smuggling debate.  I am an “obey the rules” kind of guy so I don’t break cruise line rules regarding bringing personal beverages aboard.  If you do, then you do so at your own peril.  It’s between you, the cruise line, and perhaps your conscience.   I just wouldn’t run around telling everyone about it if I did sneak booze aboard.

Anyway, after my last cruise I got to thinking about the bar prices and decided to look at them over the past few years and how they have increased.   Bar and large, drink prices are the same across the mainstream cruise lines.  Variances are not significant.

Gimme A Beer

I’ll only talk about domestic brands of beer.  When I first started paying attention to cruise ship bar prices, a 12 ounce can of beer was sold for around $3.  This price stayed pretty much stagnant for several years, maybe increasing 25 cents every two or three years.   Since the 15% tip is standard across most lines, I’ll exclude it so things don’t get confusing.  Thus when I bought a can of Budweiser on a ship in 2001 it was $3.00 and when I bought one in 2006 it was $3.75.   Not exactly cheap, but in line with typical hotel or resort prices.

Enter The 16 Ounce Bottle

A few years ago cruise lines threw a new variable into the beer equation.  16 ounce plastic and aluminum bottles started showing up more and more at cruise ship bars, along with much higher prices.  Was it a convenient way to jack up prices, by muddling things with a larger serving? Let’s look.

16 ounce prices have more variation than did the 12 ounce cans.  On my recent Carnival cruise, Anheuser-Busch products sold for $5.75 a serving, whereas those in plastic bottles such as Miller Lite and Coors were $4.95.  Given that a couple brands still sold in 12 ounce cans were $4.50 the Coors and Miller Lite were comparatively good deals.  But in reality even the $5.75 bottle of Bud was cheaper per ounce than that in the 12 ounce can.  The can is 38 cents per ounce.  The larger bottles ranged from 31 to 36 cents per ounce.  But then, do most people really want a larger serving?  Order a bucket of four 16 ounce bottles and you get $2 off, so for $21 you get a half-gallon of beer.  Party time!

I live in Alabama which has some of the highest prices for alcoholic beverages in the nation.  It isn’t scientific, but let’s say that as Alabama prices go, so goes the rest of the country.  For at least the past 20 years, a case of Budweiser has cost pretty much the same at local stores.  It was $16 dollars in 1990 and in today’s newpaper ads I can get that case of Bud for $17 at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store.  So is it safe to say that wholesale prices have been similarly steady?  I think so.

Mixed Drinks & Wine

My favorite drink is a Barcardi & Coke, and when I’m feeling noble I like a martini.  That rum and Coke currently goes for $5.75, and the martini can run from $6.50 to $10 depending on which gin or vodka you want.  These prices don’t seem to have risen as much over the years, at least when compared to those cruise ship beers.  As I recall, that rum and Coke cost me $4.25 in 2005, and the martini was $5.25.   Meanwhile, at the Alabama ABC Store (we have ridiculously ancient liquor laws) the state charges me $22 for a 1.75 liter bottle of Barcardi light rum.

Wine prices on ships are similar to liquor, at least by the glass.  It can be hard to swallow paying $30 for a bottle of chardonnay on a ship that sells for $10 at my local Texaco station (a surprising selection of wines).  But you can get a nice glass of wine on a ship for $7 to $10.  These seem much the same as what I paid in 2004 at the wine bar on the Mariner Of The Seas.

Bottom Line

Cruise lines have quietly raised bar prices over the past few years when I think their wholesale prices have not changed much.  If my retail prices haven’t changed in years, why should I think the cruise lines are paying more for their stock?  Thus they are getting more profit out of each beer or cocktail they sell.   Was this a reaction to cruise fares being flat, and having to find income someplace else?  Perhaps.

However there is a limit to what people will pay for a drink.  When I add the 15% tip into that $5.75 Bud, it is $6.61.  That is getting into uncomfortable territory for many cruisers.  My observations are that cruise line bar prices are now increasing every year, and sometimes more than once during a year.

My view is if this trend continues it cannot be sustained by the typical passenger on many mainstream lines.  I don’t see how drink prices can increase much further without it becoming a deal breaker for many people.  It has already led to increased smuggling, a market for specialized smuggling containers, all of which leads to more draconian rules and luggage inspections by cruise lines.  Many passengers will only be squeezed so far and at some point the cruise lines will have to look at other ways to generate revenue.

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Comment from Buck
Time July 29, 2010 at 8:30 pm

I have been on many cruises over the years. I enjoy a couple of drinks before dinner and a night cap or two. The first cruise I was on in 95, the outside cabin was 500 and the bar tab was 100. The last cruise was 650 but the bar tab was 350. Some friends we have cruised with many times have given up on cruises and have switched to all inclusive resorts. They talked me into it. I have booked an all inclusive 4 star stay in Mexico with air for 650 with a 100 resort credit, no extra charges for drinks, specialty restaurants or tips. Even with excursions it will be a cheaper vacation than a cruise. I can buy a bottle of Absolute for six bucks on one of the islands we visited, why am I charged 6 bucks for a drink. I know the cruise lines need to make money but give me a break.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time July 30, 2010 at 6:48 am

It is important to note that comparing an AI to a cruise isn’t an apples to apples comparison. Cruise ships do offer things a land resort doesn’t, but as extra fees continue to grow on ships, an AI does become an appealing choice – even if the scenery doesn’t change.

Comment from Bob
Time July 30, 2010 at 9:33 am

I just pulled up yesterday’s menu at my local McCormick & Schmick’s (a somewhat high end seafood restaurant). Their featured wine was a Saint M Riesling for $29 a bottle. Chardonnay ranges from $29-$86 a bottle.

The Melting Pot (fondue place) has Chardonnays from $26-$72 though they do have some half bottles for less.

Seems that the cruise lines are pretty much “in line” with the restaurant industry at least as far as wine pricing is concerned.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time July 30, 2010 at 10:01 am

Wine on cruise ships, while still at a premium, does seem to be priced about the same as it’s been for several years. I paid $31 for a bottle of Pinot Grigio on Carnival. I forget the brand name but it wasn’t high end. I paid about the same for similar wines at least 5 years ago.

Comment from buck
Time August 2, 2010 at 8:58 pm

I agree that AI and Cruises are not the same. A vacation for me is a gateway, a time to enjoy and forget about everything. Yes the scenery doesn’t change at an AI but there are excursions you can take just like a cruise. With money being tight now I like to get the best bang for my bucks. I can get a flight, room over looking the beach, food, drinks, transfers, tips (no fuel surcharge) and golf for under 100 bucks a day. Excursions are about the same as a cruise. I love cruising but they are pricing themselves out of the market in today’s economy.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time August 3, 2010 at 10:51 am

I think an AI becomes more of a factor if you are looking at a shorter getaway. A 4 night cruise, or 4 nights at an AI? Given that parameter an AI really does have appeal, especially if they offer a package with air included.

Comment from BILL W
Time August 24, 2010 at 7:03 pm

We were told on our upcoming voyage. that we were allowed. 2 bottles of wine.. per stateroom.. on Celeb.. but what about returning to your ship. from a port of Call.. are you allowed to bring booze back on board..? we’ ve been offered unlimited.. booze on board for like 375. per person.. for a 7 day trip.. But we hear different blurbs. about bartenders..when they see your AAA Card.. (All Alcohol Adventure) making you wait. and little on the rude side.. Would it just be better.. to just .pander to one or 2 bar tenders. on the whole cruise..

Comment from Penny3333
Time November 12, 2010 at 11:01 am

I often wonder if cruise lines are doing this to cut down on the amount of intoxication on board. I know the bar tenders can cut someone off, but there are those that have smuggled their own supply and keep right on going.

I know most everyone believes that the cruise lines are cutting down on smuggling because they want to increase their bottom lines, but I truly believe they’re trying to cut down on danger. I seem to notice less overly intoxicated people on board, except on shorter cruises, so I have to wonder if there really is a method to their madness (so to speak).

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time November 23, 2010 at 4:49 am

It is not the price of the cocktail, its the quality of the drink that I find to be of question, and offensive to me and my wallet.

Lets back up to the good old days, the late 1960’s and the early/mid 1970’s. Drinks were priced on the average of $0.85 – no kidding, and drinking age was not an issue. The cruise lines purchased their liquor in St. thomas, duty free, the savings passed on to the passenger. There were cocktails that were higher in price, the premium labels, $1.50 a pop. Wine selections were pitifall, and wine by the glass was unheard of. Fancy drinks were also pretty much unheard of, with maybe a pina colada out by the pool.

Today, drinks are very highly priced on some ships, and the quality lacking, how much liquor does one think is actually in the frozen strawberry daquiri, or the watered down drink of the day? That HUGE martini glass, only 1/3 full, at $12.50 per is no bargain, nor are those special sail away drinks, all you really get is a cheap plastic glass to take home. Some cruise lines know how to dupe the passengers and the passengers fall for it all of the time.

If one can drink plain liquor, order your favorite libation neat, ice on the side, water or mixer, ON THE SIDE, and see what you get. Chances are you will get a decent pour, and can mix it to suit yourself. On the other hand, I have orderd NEAT, only to have a watered down libation with tell tale ice melting and so the drink was watwered down,. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE PEOPLE. I send it back until the drink is to my expectation.

There are cruise lines that do infact mix and and serve quality cocktails, then there are others that serve what most Americans are used to, watered down drinks like they get at the chain restaurants.

The old saying “you get what you pay for” has sadly “you get what you’re used to.”

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